Alaska's food stamp backlog cut tens of thousands out of program last year

Alaska saw a drop in the number of food stamp recipients over the past year far larger than any other state as processing delays caused low-income households to miss out on their benefits.

While more than half of states actually had an increase in SNAP beneficiaries, among those that saw a decline none came anywhere close to the 69% drop in participation Alaska experienced through this spring.

Behind Alaska, Maryland saw a 21% decrease, Arkansas saw a 19% decrease and New Jersey saw a 14% decrease between March 2022 and March 2023.

Those numbers, from the most recent publicly available data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Food and Nutrition Service, show the full scale of a crisis that left tens of thousands of Alaska’s neediest residents without critical food aid for months, amid a massive backlog in applications at the Alaska Division of Public Assistance that still hasn’t been fully resolved nearly a year later.

In March 2022, over 96,000 Alaskans were enrolled in the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, more commonly known as food stamps.

A year later, that number had dropped to just over 29,000. It had climbed back to over 64,000 as of the end of May as applications were processed, according to the state.

“Seeing the numbers, and seeing just that huge decline quantified, it’s a bit shocking,” said Cara Durr, chief of advocacy and public policy at the Food Bank of Alaska.

State health officials say the drop throuugh this past spring can be largely attributed to the backlog, which began last August, leaving tens of thousands of Alaskans needing assistance waiting months for the state to process their annual recertification or new applications to the program.

As of the end of June, the backlog still numbered more than 7,000 applications that had been received between November and March, Deb Etheridge, the division’s director, said July 1.

In addition to the backlog of cases, Durr noted the challenges that many Alaskans were experiencing during the winter and fall with getting through to the state’s then-overwhelmed call center for help with their applications. The call center was at the time reporting hourslong wait times.

“I think these numbers speak to access issues that go beyond the backlog,” she said.

In Alaska, about one in eight households were enrolled in the food stamps program before the backlog cut deeply into the case count. In Wrangell, last year’s average monthly caseload was about 120 households.

More than two-thirds of SNAP recipients in Alaska have children in their families, and most have incomes below the federal poverty line.

Etheridge said it was important to note that the 2022 SNAP enrollment numbers were somewhat elevated compared to prior years due to the pandemic-era provisions that allowed Alaskans enrolled in the program to automatically renew, without needing to prove their continued eligibility.

The drop-off in benefit recipients began last August, around the time the state received an influx of recertification applications in advance of Alaska’s pandemic-era Emergency Allotment Program expiring in September.

The program had made it easier for Alaskans to receive maximum benefits without annual recertifications, and ended when the state’s COVID-19 emergency declaration did.

State officials have also attributed the backlog to a staff shortage at the division and a cyberattack.

Advocates, however, have pointed out that many of the problems that led to the backlog were longstanding. In 2018, the Alaska state ombudsman investigated recurring complaints about the division related to similar delays in application processing, chronic understaffing and challenges recipients were having getting through to staff.

The ombudsman’s report recommended that the division increase its staffing. Instead, the public assistance program lost 100 positions to a budget reduction in 2021.

Over the past year, the delays have triggered a lawsuit, a stern warning from the federal government, a one-time funding boost from Gov. Mike Dunleavy and a push by the Food Bank of Alaska to get emergency food out to rural Alaska where need was particularly great.

State health officials have said that they’ve been working through the backlog as fast as they can, and aggressively recruiting more staff to address an ongoing staff shortage at the state’s public assistance division.

They’ve requested and received a funding promise for an overhaul of their antiquated IT system, hired dozens of new employees and extended the days and hours Division of Public Assistance offices are open to the public.

They also say they have assigned their most experienced eligibility technicians to focus on the backlog, and are working on launching an online application for SNAP and other benefits by the end of the year. Most new applications to SNAP in recent weeks are being processed in a timely way, the state said.


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